Your Screenplay or TV Pilot: How Long Should it Take to Write?

Okay, I admit it, I’ve been in denial. I did not think that this blogpost would need writing. Which, let’s face it, is nothing short of stupid on my part because, well, I have this conversation ALL. THE. TIME.

Even as I write this, I think to myself: This blogpost is going to be a short one. There isn’t that much to say; the message is completely straight forward.

Writers ask me all the time: How long should it take to write a new screenplay? A  new TV pilot? Or, in other words, how quickly should I be able to generate industry-ready new work?  

The answer is actually pretty simple: 

When starting to develop your craft, when you’re just starting out, don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. It’s all about writing a good script. NOT about writing a fast script. Often times, and especially at the start of a screenwriter’s career, a screenplay or TV pilot that is written well has little to do with a screenplay or TV pilot written fast.

There are a ton of reasons why writers, especially those who have not broken in yet, think they should be writing – first and foremost – fast: Managers have told them as much. They have read about an idealized writer’s regiment in a blogpost or online mag. Even I have been guilty of telling my writers that in a perfect world I would like to see them finish a new TV pilot or feature script every 4-6 months. But that’s in a perfect world. And that perfect world does not show up for most writers right off the bat, especially when they are still getting to know their voices and just developing their craft.

I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve had tell me that they want to write three to four new original features a year right from the start; that, even though they’ve never completed an outstanding piece before and it’s December, they want to have two different original scripts in showable-shape by the end of Q1. That they want to write six new original pilots a year, even though they have yet to write a single one.

To which I have one thing to say: SLOW THE F**K DOWN. 

When reading your work, no one will ever say to you: “Great script, but too bad that it took you so long to write it.” If it’s a great piece of original work, no one will care how long it took you to write, because truly great original pieces, be they TV pilots or spec features, don’t land on people’s desks every day. Especially early on in your career, when you are developing your craft, you have to be a lot more mindful of what you put on the page than how fast you are able to put words to paper.

And writing, especially when a TV pilot is concerned, is a lot more than FADE IN and FADE OUT. It’s pre-work. It’s planning. It’s thinking through not only your pilot, but also the series that it sets up. It’s writing treatments and outlines and character bios if you have to, doing note cards or grids or story mapping or… whatever is called-for in your methodology. Which, naturally, most writers do not yet have in place. Methodology, that is. So then, before figuring out your craft and honing in on your voice, it’s about trying different things on for size before you are able to settle on a process that you find productive.

While, on occasion, a lucky writer might be able to put his head down on day 1, and 30-60 days later emerge with a fully baked, entirely unique, extremely fresh and exciting screenplay or original pilot, this is akin to lightning in a bottle, and lightning in a bottle is not something you can design. Having worked with big writers on both the feature (studio writers) and TV (showrunners and EPs) fronts, I can tell you than more often than not, that great work does not come easy. For some, it only gets harder the longer that they’re writing. And rarely does anyone finish new work as quickly as they had intended.

There are differences between professional, working writers who have spent thousands of hours honing their craft, and those just starting out. Therefore, new writers can’t expect to create at the same velocity as someone who has been writing full-time. It’s much like running a marathon: If you haven’t trained, if you have not conditioned your body, you are just not going to be able to keep up with those who have, no matter how much talent you have when you first show up.

Once you figure out your process, discovered how to write a screenplay that is not just decent but actually good, then you can start working on velocity, and challenge yourself to create high quality content in less and less time. A few years ago, one of my clients arrived to a coaching session and announced that since his mentor, a 20-year industry veteran, told him that he generates a new pilot every 3 months when not running a room, my client now intended to challenge himself to do the same. The only problem? It took him 18 months to write his previous pilot which, due to a lack of cohesive process, included some major page-1 rewrites. By proposing to write a new pilot in 3 months instead of 18, the writer was effectively proposing developing a new pilot in a 6th of the time, without any process-oriented adjustments to cut down the timeline. I won’t bore you with details, but let me just share that my client’s new pilot ended up taking nearly 20 months to write, because poor pre-work, planning and process is something that velocity will never be able to get you around.

Often, the sign of a novice is someone who receives what the note-giver considers to be substantial, surgical (i.e. not just cosmetic) notes, only to reply with “Great! I can turn it around in a couple of days!” A major rewrite needs thought, requires significant baking. Attempting to turn that major rewrite around in just a few days usually implies that you didn’t allow for the time required to really fold in the notes and use them to significantly elevate the work. Developing original work is deceptively complicated; more often than not, aiming to do so too quickly implies that maybe the writer doesn’t quite get just how complex the work is.

The good news for those who are all for writing fast? You will have plenty of chances to do so if things go well, and once you nail down your process, you want to start accelerating your writing, and challenge yourself to keep your process in place, but move through it faster. It’s all part of the training required for the screenwriting career ahead.

Whether on an open writing assignment (OWA) or staffed in a writer’s room, in the professional realm there is always a clock associated with the work. For features, you will have to turn outlines in to producers in 2-6 weeks, while drafts will usually require a set number of weeks: 12-weeks, 8-weeks, 6-weeks, with additional steps (rewrite, polish) requiring an even faster schedule. And writing in a TV writer’s room will happen even faster: Once an episode is broken and comes “off the board,” the writer will often have a few days for a story area, two weeks or less (often just one) for the outline, and once revisions are made and the outline is signed off on, as little as one week to get to a full episode draft. I once had a writer call me in a panic: “It’s September 1st. I was just assigned an episode that’s not yet broken, that will start shooting on September 18th.” Because he had been honing his craft for years and had his process in place, he was able to deliver his episode with flying colors.

But it’s not just when you get into a writer’s room or land that first writing assignment that you want to push on the accelerator. Once you land representation, you want to speed up your writing schedule wherever you can. You don’t want years to pass between the times when you submit new work to your reps. If you allow that much time to lapse from project to project without being in the room or on assignment, eventually, they will just lose interest and move their focus to another writing client who is able to more consistently generate high quality new work.

Becoming the sort of writer who has both the process and the discipline to succeed in a TV writers room, keep her reps excited about her, or land – and deliver on – writing assignment with great drafts delivered on a tight schedule is not something that happens overnight. Much as a fledgling Opera singer will not be able to deliver a flawless Carmen’s Habanera upon arrival, and a new chef will likely not be able to put out an inspired paella without a little bit of practice, writing a standout script – which is really what we are going for here – is going to take practice and time. Anyone can throw words on the page and do it quickly. It’s those who are able to learn how to construct powerful, carefully orchestrated, fully developed and emotionally resonant screenplays and TV pilots in a timely fashion that go on to have the sort of careers worth getting excited about.